If there is anything that approaches a creed in Ethical Culture it is respect for the dignity of human beings. A respect and reverence for the worth or dignity of people is the foundation of Ethical Culture; it is central to our understanding of ethics and to us. “Dignity” is a word we frequently use, but what do we mean by it? Certainly, without even defining it, we know very well when our dignity has been violated. It is that emotional pain we feel when we have been insulted, when we are made to feel, deliberately and maliciously, ashamed and humiliated, when our privacy has been invaded, and when part of us which we would prefer to keep secret from the world has been exposed for everyone to see. Our dignity has been assaulted when our reputation has been attacked, or when we sense that those with power lord it over us and make us feel small. Vulnerable as we are, there are, perhaps, innumerable ways in which our dignity can be assaulted and violated.
But what specifically do we mean by this invisible quality that resides somewhere within us, and regard for which is the centerpiece of ethical behavior? Certainly in the Western tradition, dignity is tightly linked to freedom, to autonomy, to our power to mold ourselves and our world. Freedom and dignity go together, so where there is no freedom, there is no dignity. If our lives were such that we are pushed around at the whim and behests of others, there would no freedom and no dignity. The slave possesses neither freedom nor dignity. The struggle of colonized people, of African-Americans in the civil rights movement and the struggles of oppressed people anywhere is a struggle for freedom which seeks after equality in the service of dignity.
It was the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who articulated in the most thoroughgoing way this union of freedom and dignity. Kant proclaimed that everything in the world has either a value or a dignity. The value of an object is based on the needs that it fulfills for someone and the use to which we can put it. The value of an object is relative to the person who is evaluating it, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Bob will pay $1,000 for a new laptop computer, which he plans to put to great use. Mary will pay only $50 for the same laptop because she already owns three laptop computers, and so owning a fourth doesn’t fill any special need. Jill will pay a dollar for a bottle of Poland Spring water, But Jack, who is dying of thirst in the desert, will spend his entire fortune of $10 million dollars for that same bottle of water, because it is the only thing that stands between his survival and his demise. The value of an object, again, is based on the use we can make of the object, and that value rises or falls according to the needs of the evaluator, as does the price of the object. The price is relative to the interests of the evaluator. For Kant, value and price are synonyms. The price of the laptop is $1,000 or $50; the bottle of water $1 or $10 million. But Kant asks us to consider what is the price of Bob, Mary, Jack or Jill? How much would we pay for them? And Kant tells us that when it comes to human beings, and human beings alone, they have no price, they are beyond price. Unlike any other thing in the universe that we use and exploit for our own gain and our own interest, human beings are off the scale of cost and benefit calculation, they have no market value, they are, Kant tells us, priceless. Things possess a value. But human beings possess, by contrast, what Kant call “dignity.”
Respect for this dignity became the centerpiece of Kant’s ethics. In the development of his ethical theory, Kant penned the most sublime proclamation in the history of moral philosophy. He created what he called the Categorical Imperative, or the Supreme Moral Law — Imperative in the sense of a command, and Categorical meaning absolute, free-standing, not dependent on anything else. What is the Categorical Imperative?
Kant says that when you go out into the sphere of moral action “Act in such a way that you treat the humanity in others, and in yourself, as an end in-and-of-himself or -herself, and not solely as a means.” By a means, Kant meant that we should never use a person exclusively like a tool to satisfy our interests and our lusts. We should not treat people like a thing. By an end in-and-of-herself, Kant meant as a free, self-governing, autonomous being. And the reason we should so act toward people is that they possess dignity. “Humanity” and “dignity” for Kant mean the same thing.
Kant’s imperative has great practical application. Not reducing people to a tool for our own interests means that we don’t enslave other people. We don’t murder them, torture them, or use them as objects for sadism or cruelty. We don’t manipulate them. We don’t degrade them or humiliate them. And we don’t lie to or deceive them, because deception is a form of manipulation. When the young woman says to a sexually predatory male suitor, “Don’t love me just for my body; don’t treat me like a thing,” she is raising a Kantian protest. As does everyone else who protests in the service of protecting their own dignity.
It is interesting that for Kant the highest moral value that we need to engage in our relations with others is not love or compassion, or niceness, however important these values are. Rather, the highest value for Kant is respect. Here, again, Kant is expressing an important insight about ethics. Inferentially he is telling us that it is easy to be ethical with people whom we like or love. But ethics really comes to the forefront, it really does its most important and distinctive work, when we ask ourselves the following question: “How am I to behave with people whom I cannot stand? With people whose personalities, or habits or customs, I find disgusting?” What the Categorical Imperative bids us to do is not to like or love people whom we don’t like or love. But in our relations with such people, we need to treat them, nevertheless, with respect. Which means, however we feel about them, we need to recognize that they are human beings, nonetheless, whom we may not abuse or degrade.
This is true even for people who have done us real harm, such as criminals. What the Categorical Imperative does not say is that criminals should not be punished for what they have done to us and to society. Indeed, according to Kant’s reasoning, punishing a criminal is actually a way of expressing our respect for him, for it implies that we appreciate that the criminal is a free agent who has chosen to do what he has done, and could have chosen otherwise.
But what the Kantian tradition, with its standards of dignity and respect, has also done is to inject into our criminal law what we would call civilizing standards, which preclude cruelty or revenge. So we do not rape the rapist, we do burn down the house of the arsonist, we do not torture the torturer. Rather, we search for some civilizing standard by which to treat malefactors, which in the process of assessing punishment hopefully keeps us civilized as well. It was Dostoyevsky who once observed that we can judge the level of civilization of any society by entering its prisons. In other words, how we treat the worst among us is a reflection of who we are.
But my point here is that the value of human dignity, which is tagged to the values of freedom, autonomy and personal agency, stands behind and in the center of civilized behavior whether personal or public.
A few more examples will suffice. As a professor of human rights, I work with my students in gaining a theoretical understanding of human rights. And, if we had to reduce the human rights idea to a single value, it would be the value of human dignity especially as it pertains to “the Other,” that is the man or woman who is not one of us, from our nation or tribe — in short, the stranger. It states right at the very beginning, in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, etc.”
Dignity lies behind the articles of the Universal Declaration, certainly in regard to the protection of political rights, such as the right to be free of torture and slavery, and to be free from government intrusion on your right to speech and religious belief. But dignity also lies behind so-called economic rights such as the right to food, housing, education, and, yes, medical care. The presumption is that if your economic wherewithal falls below a certain threshold so that you are living on the street, or cannot read, or are chronically ill with diseases that could readily be treated, or you are eating out of a garbage can, your dignity has been impugned. The preservation of dignity, again, is the benchmark of civilizing standards and of fundamental human rights.
Finally, we use the concept of dignity in a more colloquial sense when we say that, “he comports himself with dignity, or she is a very dignified person.” But even here I think that what the word “dignity” suggests is that such a person possesses a strong element of inner confidence and freedom. That they are their own people, so to speak, who remain unruffled by the annoyances and afflictions of the outside word. They are inwardly free in a way that is reflected in their outward bearing and demeanor.
Where does all this leave us? It is simply to make the point that we understand dignity to be synonymous with the idea of personal freedom, with the autonomy of the self to do what one wants, to be, in other words, a self-governing agent. I believe that this understanding, although given exquisite philosophical articulation in the West, is universally true. Step on anyone’s dignity anywhere, and they will protest and rebel.
But is this correlation of dignity with personal freedom the only way in which to understand the concept of dignity? I think that it is not, and by itself may not be enough. Rather than equating human dignity with freedom, there are traditions that see dignity as based on just the opposite.
In traditional Judaism, for example, the believer lives in a world of divine commandments, and personal dignity does not come from being a free autonomous agent, but rather fulfilling what God has commanded of the individual. To be commanded is to be human, and to obey the commandments is to make of oneself a holy person, a person possessed of dignity. As David Novak, a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Toronto has written. “…human dignity is affirmed by the teaching that all humans are capable in one way or another of being commanded by God, responding thereto, and being judged thereon. Accordingly the ultimate indignity of death is that the dead person is now free from the commandments, which means being deprived of essential human nature to be turned into something else, that is ‘to return to the dust’.… Human persons,” says Novak, “are regarded as sojourners in the world who can only find their dwelling in the world when they realize that their authentic identity is neither derived from the world nor from themselves. That identity comes from being related to the One Who Himself transcends the world and directs it…” And then quoting from Psalm 119, Novak writes, “‘I am a sojourner on the earth; do not hide your commandments from me’.” Once again, dignity results not from being free to do whatever one wants, but just the opposite — being commanded by the transcendent God, and living to fulfill the commandments.
In an altogether different religious idiom we can look to Hinduism. In Hinduism, the most prevalent value is what is called in Sanskrit “dharma.” Dharma can be translated as morality, convention, propriety, or duty. The Hindu is born into a sea of dharmic obligations. Each stage and station in life has its own set of dharmic responsibilities. There is a dharma for students and merchants, beggars, monks and kings. Men and women have their own respective dharmas. The caste one is born into has its own set of dharmic obligations, its dharmic duties. One achieves one’s dignity, as well as one’s standing in the next life based on how well one performs one’s dharma. The idea, for example, that one is born free with rights and entitlements, simply as a matter of being a human being, finds no place in Hinduism. For the Hindu one earns entitlements through the performance of one’s duties and obligations. There is a saying in Hinduism that it is far better to perform one’s prescribed dharmic obligations poorly than to perform well dharma which is inappropriate to one’s station.
Implicitly, we have this sense in Western society. There are simply modes of behavior which are appropriate for each stage of life. If a 25-year-old is a playboy, we may not like it, but we don’t think necessarily that it is inappropriate for that stage of life. If Hugh Heffner in his 80s is acting like a playboy, well, from the Hindu standpoint as well as our own, there is something out of alignment with that. The Hindu might judge that there is something dharmically and cosmically wrong with it.
I should mention that Mohandas Gandhi, who was a devout but reformist Hindu, also had problems with the Western notion of freedom, and its being the source of human dignity. Gandhi believed in personal freedom, but he took great pains to explain that what he meant by freedom is not what a Westerner means by freedom.
The word which Gandhi used to describe freedom, which lay at the core of his personal and political philosophy, is the Sanskrit term “swaraj,” which is better translated as “self-rule.” Gandhi didn’t like the Western notion of freedom, because for him it connoted license to do what one pleases. Swaraj, by contrast, means the inner freedom which comes from self-discipline, and mastery over the self, which can only result from self-knowledge. We can only be truly free, Gandhi believed, when we have mastered our impulses and become self-disciplined. It was toward this concept of swaraj that Gandhi attempted to educate his followers, because he believed that only if they had attained this inner freedom, could they truly submit themselves to the discipline necessary to engage in non-violent resistance against the British, and thereby win India’s political independence. Gandhi once wrote, “If we become free, India is free. It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves,” he once said.
The way toward achieving this inner discipline, Gandhi held, was by doing one’s dharmic duty. He had written that a right form of civilization “is that mode of conduct which points out to a man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves.”
As I point out, these examples drawn from Orthodox Judaism and Hinduism say nothing about human dignity as lodged in our autonomy and our freedom as we usually understand it, but rather in something that looks like the opposite, the immersion of self in obligations and duties as a way to fulfill one’s highest humanity and one’s dignity.
Without romanticizing either Judaism or Hinduism, and recognizing the dangers of transferring values from other cultures and applying them to one’s own, I nevertheless ask whether these approaches to dignity, in a much wider sense, have something to teach us.
Though it is not sexy or daring, I think they do. I should mention that Felix Adler placed himself in the Kantian tradition of the freedom of the individual, and Ethical Culture is built on Kantian principles which Adler expanded and built upon. Adler identified Ethical Culture as a so-called “free religion” meaning that each member should exercise a totally free conscience when it comes to their personal creeds and in how they ground their understanding of ethics. Adler underscored the importance of individual freedom when he declared that Ethical Culture stands for “unanimity in the deed, but diversity in the creed.”
But, at the same time, Adler believed he was doing something religious when he created Ethical Culture, and he was himself deeply immersed in religious history. While he upheld the importance of freedom of thought, he at the same time, referred to Ethical Culture as “the religion of duty.”
Words such as “duty,” “obligation,” “responsibility” have a very negative resonance in our culture. This is so because we understand duty to run against our inclinations. In its most superficial sense doing one’s duty means doing what you have to do when you don’t want to do it. And certainly there ain’t no fun in the concept of duty. In this sense, duty and obligation are the opposite of freedom.
But are they really? The social psychologist Erich Fromm used to talk about two types of freedom. There is “freedom from,” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is the freedom from what constrains us. There is certainly a lot of dignity in resisting the forces that constrain us and throwing off the shackles of oppression and standing in the glorious sunlight of freedom. There are always these battles to be fought. But, once you have your freedom what do you do with it? It is then that we can exercise our “freedom to.”
It is my understanding that dignity comes from recommitting ourselves to dedications and tasks that call us to purposes beyond our mere self-interest. It is the willing immersion in a world of obligations — call them commitments, if you will — that puts flesh on the bones of freedom. It is sensing what needs to be done, and moving ahead to it. It is this sense of dedication or obligation that is also, I believe, a source of our dignity, of our humanity. It is to make of oneself what is referred to in Yiddish as “a mensch,” that is, a person of substance, and above all, a person of moral substance. Our sense of duty can lead us to help a friend in need, or a beloved family member. It might even extend to making coffee on a Sunday morning for the sake of your fellow members. Or duty may lead you to working on behalf of justice, on behalf of your fellow members of the human family, who through no fault of their own have received the short straws in life. Felix Adler had once said “Dedicate yourself to humankind,” as a way of edifying one’s own life.
Sometimes duty calls us to do what we want to do. But often it doesn’t and that’s just the way it is. Sometimes we need to do the right thing even if it runs against our inclinations, and the only satisfaction we are left with is knowing that we have done the right thing, or at least, have tried to. Clearly unchosen commitments can be too much, can be overwhelming and can truly drain our resources. Even the most committed person is finite in his or her energies. Often we have to negotiate how we manage the demands that are made of us, and there are no formulaic or easy answers to that. But that’s an issue I put aside for now.
When a sick child wakens a parent in the middle of the night, we would be hard pressed to say that there would be much dignity in the parent saying something like “I am a free, autonomous agent, and out of my freedom, I choose to ignore my child and go back to sleep.” No, the dignity comes from doing what one must do, and from running to help the child, even if the parent knows that she will have a hard day tomorrow and in that sense would rather not do it. One suspects that in this instance doing one’s duty comes from the love that one has for one’s child.
But in some instances, I think that it can be the other way around; namely that fulfilling one’s duty can actually be a source of love. There is a memorable refrain in Fiddler on the Roof which, I think, psychologically reveals an important truth about love and marriage. Tevye the milkman asks his wife, Golde, whether she loves him, and she responds with something like “Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow…”. If we can get beyond the sexism, I think the message is that in marriage after the initial glow of romance has faded, the bonds of love are strengthened and even emerge in a new light through the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities. After the first love fades, a “second love,” so to speak, can emerge. It is duty that can be a matrix of love and not only the other way around.
In closing, I would observe that a life that is free of obligation and commitment is not only an isolated and lonely life. It is also a very thin and impoverished one. Ethical Culture teaches, I think, that a life well lived is not one that flees from the human condition and the obligations that it places upon us. But rather a life well lived is one that actively engages the world. The obligations that life calls us to are like life’s raw material. Just as the sculptor causes a figure to materialize out of the wood or the marble, so we carve out for ourselves a personality through doing what the circumstances at hand demand of us. And if we do our duty as we need to, we manifest our dignity and the better parts of our nature as we go.
6 April 2008